I recently came across an image in a manuscript in the Bodleian Library that made me think of Gwyneth Paltrow. The image, from a late 13th-century medical compendium (Bodl. MS Ashmole 399), shows a woman, who appears to have fainted, being attended by a physician and servants. One of the female servants is wafting a burning feather beneath the patient’s nose. Another is extending a hand towards the patient’s genitals. She is receiving ‘odiferous therapy’, whereby strong-smelling substances were wafted under the nose and the vagina.

This treatment was thought to cure the affliction of the ‘wandering womb’ – a disease first mentioned by Hippocrates and appearing in several medieval treatises – whereby the uterus left its usual position and took a trip around the body. (The word hysteria is derived from the Ancient Greek for uterus.) The tempting aromas wafting from the vagina and repellent aromas wafting from the nasal passages were thought to coax the womb back to its correct position. Not only were wombs thought to wander, but they also had a sense of smell.

No one could believe such nonsense these days, you might think. But the image reminded me of Gwyneth Paltrow’s advocating of ‘vaginal steaming’ on her lifestyle blog, Goop. She recommended a contraption called a ‘mugwort v-steam’, which apparently uses a combination of ‘infrared and mugwort steam’. (Widely condemned by gynaecologists, the post has since disappeared from her site, like an ephemeral medieval text.) The idea of infrared steam sounds modern – or Modernist – but mugwort is a staple of medieval medical treatises.

An early 11th-century Herbarium advises that the plant can soothe sore tendons, ease stomach pain and expel demons. John Arderne, in his influential 14th-century Fistula in Ano, describes how he used mugwort to treat a man who ‘was smyten on his legge vpon þe shynbone’. A Middle English version of the Secreta Secretorum, a pseudo-Aristotelian treatise purportedly addressed to Alexander the Great, suggests that mugwort can be used to treat ‘yville humoures’ in the ‘Ballokis’.

I couldn’t find any reference to mugwort’s ability to cleanse women’s genitals, as suggested by Goop. That isn’t to say, however, that Paltrow doesn’t have access to a medieval text unknown to scholarship, which outlines how the womb, on smelling the enticing infrared aromas of mugwort, sets off towards the v-steam to be cleaned.